Disappearing 9 Patch

a commissioned quilt


size: 88" by 104"

January 2009

I read a few blogs that cover a wide variety of topics. One sewing blog I read is Erin's "A Dress A Day" (a dress. mostly every day). Erin is a seamstress and she sews garments. Mostly she shows dresses (always dresses! always with pockets!) that she has made for herself (if she sews for others, I'm not aware of it). And she has the most eclectic taste in fabrics.

In a past blog, she lamented the state of her sewing room and "... whatever am I going to do with all these scraps?...". I haven't a clue what the rest of the blog was about because I immediately focused on the fact that 1) she had lots and lots and LOTS of scraps, 2) they were (mostly) cotton and 3)she had a dilemma. Pirate to the rescue! :-)

I contacted her and suggested, in a very engaging manner, that perhaps she should think Very Strongly about having a memory quilt made from all those scraps. Furthermore, I was the one who could do a superlative job. :-) Face it, you gotta blow your own horn once in a while. :-)

Emails between us ensued (some of them from me of the Great American Email variety) and we came to an agreement about the size, layout, colors, timeframe and cost of a quilt. Initially, the agreement was that she would send me a boatload of scraps and I would piece a top for her. At that time, my skills with my Tin Lizzie longarm quilting machine weren't too competent and I was up-front about this with her.

However, as in all things, Life Got in the Way ... for both of us. Since this quilt wasn't being made for a specific event nor did it have a hard deadline, slipping the dates was agreeable. It wasn't until several months later that Erin was finally able to go through her scraps and box them up for me. She mentioned to me that her procedure was to (paraphrasing) " .. find a scrap, throw it in the box. Repeat until box is full. Find another box. Repeat." Eventually I received 3 (!) BIG boxes stuffed to the gunwales with fabric.

As any fabriholic will attest, being able to fondle fabric is an aphrodesiac. And while you can traipse down memory lane with your own scraps, being able to fondle NEW scraps that you will be working with is near ecstacy. At least it was for me. :-) The downside was that Erin was not kidding when she said she was literally throwing the fabric into the boxes .... they arrived stuffed and crammed and very wrinkled.

It took me several hours of sorting through all the fabrics (some weren't suitable at all for a quilt top), ironing the pieces and folding them into an organized pile. (Although this doesn't look like a whole LOT of fabric, imagine all the pieces there all floofed up into wads .. that would take up much more space and look much more impressive. :-) ) Quilters will know that yardage fabric is neat and tidy and slicing strips from yardage is a no-brainer. Erin's scraps were just that ... scraps. When you make garments, you are left with some very weirdly shaped pieces. Too big to throw away yet too small or awkwardly sized to do anything useful. Finding the grainline on some of those pieces was An Adventure. :-)

From all the design ideas I had sent to her for consideration, she decided on the Disappearing 9 Patch block, as this was a new variation and would enable quilt historians to easily place this quilt on a timeline of quilt evolution. (A history of the Disappearing 9 Patch is below). Once that decision had been made, I sent her links for many, many different layouts and color placements. None held her interest until BAM! ... she saw the random color quilt. That was *it*. She specified absolutely no color placement, no pattern, no nothing. Completely random.

I knew I was Doomed. I don't do random. I like Organization. Symmetry. Pattern. Repetion. Planned placement. It all comes from being a computer programmer and all the schooling that comes with it. Us geeks are anally-retentive that way. :-) BUT ... this quilt wasn't mine and it didn't matter squat that random isn't my cup of tea. I know my problem with random is, well .. it's random. There are no rules. I have tried making random fabric quilts before and ended up micro-managing my fabric placements anyway. It's all very frustrating.

However, as my kids know, I do not like problems; I like solutions. Therefore a solution was found: Mr. Pirate created a random number generator for me for each block. For Erin's quilt, I would need to make 143 blocks. Each block was made from 9 different squares (cut at 3-1/2") and I had 60 fabrics to choose from. After I cut squares from all the fabrics I was going to use, I stuck a number label on each pile. This number corresponded to the number on the spreadsheet for that block. If a number was replicated within a block (after all, if it's a RANDOM number being generated, there will be occasions where numbers will be duplicated), even *I* could handle making a substitution. :-) The overall angst resulting from choosing 9 different fabrics for all 143 blocks just disappeared. It was now merely an exercise in seeing what numbers were in the spreadsheet for that block and picking those fabric squares.

I used a queen sized flat sheet for my design wall and as each block was sewn together & trimmed to size, up on the design wall it went. Eventually, the entire sheet was covered with the blocks and was approximately the size of Wyoming. The blocks were sewn into rows and the rows sewn together to create the top. During this time, I was desparately hoping that Erin wasn't kidding when she said she wanted a random quilt ... because .. Oh. My. Goodness ... this top was certainly that. You can't imagine my relief when, upon seeing the progress picture I sent her, she said she was in love with it. Whew! :-)

In the intervening months between the time we had agreed to the creation of the quilt and its actual construction, I had begun to reacquaint myself with my Tin Lizzie. I practiced on crib quilts for a local charity. I practiced on throws and slightly larger sizes for myself. And I practiced just to practice. I was getting better. Certainly, I had (and still do) have limitations at this point, but practice will take care of that. :-)

When the top was complete, I offered Erin my opinion on what kind of quilting would look best on this quilt (nothing fancy .. the sheer busy-ness of the top would hide any quilting [see any quilting there? but there is!]) and what kinds of quilting designs to avoid. This was to arm her with some knowledge when she started looking for a quilter. There was absolutely no sense in her being talked into pricey feathered wreaths when such lovely patterns would never been discerned. I also told her that I was improving with my own longarm quilting and should she like me to quilt and bind it, I could certainly do that.


Evidently, our professional relationship at this point was sufficiently cordial that she decided to have me quilt it. I gave her *another* Great American Email on the choices she had as far as backing, batting, quilting and binding. Bless her soul, Erin is a real trooper! She slogged through every one of my emails and made her decisions. We agreed on a pink tone-on-tone floral extra wide backing, bamboo/cotton batting (lovely to handle and work with) and a large meander for quilting. (The meander was especially attractive to her because she has wandered so much during her career!) I always make double-fold bias binding for quilt that are going to be used (as opposed to wall hangings) for durability. (I have firm, adamant convictions about this. I also don't find it a problem to make bias binding or to bind a quilt .. many quilters do and it's puzzling to me. On the other hand, there are other areas of quilting that I find obnoxious that are a snap for others. It all works out in the end.)

Lizzie got loaded with the backing, batting and top ... it darn near took up the entire length of my rollers! And with that, the quilting began! While free-motion quilting with a longarm machine sure gives you LOTS more room to work with than a home sewing machine, you still need to be spatially aware of the quilting density ... how closely are you stitching? I needed to be sure that the large meander remained just that .. that it didn't get bunched up in some areas and too sparse in others. But, in short order, the quilting was done! Woo hoo!

The quilt was trimmed, squared and bound with double-fold bias binding. Stick a fork in it cuz it's DONE! woo hoo!

All through this project, I was anxious. I kept thinking of all the things that could go wrong. When you are making something for yourself (or for a gift), if Things Happen .. such as the cat barfs on it ... the kids spill red Kool-Aid on it ... you drop your open rotary cutter and slice it ... the iron spits rust marks ... you just Make Do and carry on. But when you are working on a client project, you do NOT have that luxury. You have to produce what was agreed upon and what you promised. My anxiety level was a roller-coaster. Fortunately, the worrying was all for naught ... nothing happened except good things and I am very, very, very happy with the outcome.

I am pleased because:

The quilt has been bundled up, boxed for mailing and given into the care of the Post Office. Now, I get to worry about safe delivery. oh please, please, please, arrive safely!

Post Script, dated February 2009: I received an email from Erin to let me know that the box with the quilt arrived safely. She and her family were absolutely *thrilled* with the quilt! Her husband couldn't believe what had been created from her scraps and her son picked out the fabrics he remembered from different dresses. All in all, they were very happy with the quilt and *I* am very pleased that they are happy. :-)


One reason Erin chose the Disappearing 9 Patch was because it's apparently a contemporary block. I did some research on it and to the best of my ability, this is what I have discovered. Should anyone have further information, I would be pleased to make updates.

History of the "Disappearing 9 Patch" quilt block
(as best that could be researched)

In 2002, Karin Hallaby published her book, "Magic Pillow, Hidden Quilts", (ISBN: 0-9540928-1-3). One block featured in that book is called "Nine Patch Magic". This block is a traditional 9-patch block, which is then sliced vertically and horizontally in half through the center column and row. This results in 4 quadrants. Two diagonally opposed quadrants are then rotated 180. The 4 quadrants are then re-sewn back together. In essence, the 9 patch has now magically "disappeared".

In 2007, Helen Bailey of the UK described this block and posted a tutorial on how she created a quilt using this block on her blog, Quilts and ATCs. Helen told me that while she did call the block "Disappearing 9 Patch", she is not the person who coined the name and she is unaware of who did. Although she knew of Karin Hellaby's book when she made her tutorial, she mentioned that the Yahoo group, Stashbuster, was also discussing it when she joined the group in 2004. Unfortunately, a search of Stashbuster's archive failed to turn up any references to this block, so any discussion there can't be verified.

Helen's blog apparently was/is widely read because from that time onwards, every Internet reference to "Disappearing 9 Patch" links to Helen's blog and tutorial and she can be credited with popularizing the name. Since then, the Disappearing 9 Patch block and resultant quilt has proliferated across the quilting community.

I have also since become aware of the fact that this block has also been called "9 to 4" but I haven't found a source for that name as yet. This name might be in reference to a 9 patch becoming a 4 patch, but that is pure speculation on my part.

In 2002, Nancy Brenan Daniel wrote a book, "Disappearing Nine Patch Quilts". However, Nancy's blocks and quilts are of an entirely different layout.

Karin Hellaby's original block is hugely versatile. It can be made entirely of scraps, resulting in a quilt of completely random color distribution. If care is taken as to color placement in certain spots, many different patterns can be produced. Themed or novelty fabrics can be placed in specific spots so that they are the focus fabric in the resultant quilt. The possibilities are endless and I suspect that no two Disappearing 9 Patch quilts will ever be the same.